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A Bruised Reed

[The abbot] must be aware of his own frailty, and remember that it is forbidden to break the already bruised reed. We do not mean that he should countenance the growth of vice; but that he use discretion and tenderness as he sees it expedient for the different characters of his brothers. He is to endeavour much more to be loved than feared.

~ Rule of St. Benedict, 64

There’s a lot that parents could learn from ancient monastics. They commonly called one another “Abba” and “Amma”—father and mother—which was later formalized into Abbot and Abbess, the elders of monastic communities. (In the East, even non-elders are still often referred to as father and mother.)

Of course, there are many important differences between families and monasteries, but the familial language of monastics ought to suggest that the difference is more one of degree. Families may not strictly fast, but generally children must eat their lunch or dinner before they get dessert. Families don’t observe vigils, but little children may wake their parents up at all times of night. And both families and monasteries ought to pray together.

There are real differences of kind, however, that account for some of the differences of degree. Despite strict discipline, monasteries are voluntary communities. People join of their own free will and they can leave in the same way. Similarly, the community can choose whether or not to accept a new member, as well as whether or not one needs to leave. The text above from St. Benedict’s Rule is, in fact, about the election of community elders. Children don’t get to elect their parents. They’re stuck with them until adulthood, at least. The family as an institution is a natural community, created by God himself. Monasteries aspire to be supernatural—a higher calling, a truer family—but they are also in many ways some of the first political communities in the liberal sense we think of them today: voluntary membership, election of leaders, and written or unwritten constitutions to establish order and fairness in the community.

Nevertheless, despite these differences there is still quite a bit for non-monastics to learn from them. St. Benedict speaks of the power of patience and gentleness. Too often, we confuse strength and brute force, whether in parenting or otherwise.

I recently took my oldest son to see a place that perfectly illustrates this. It was shown to me many years ago—sixteen, I think—but I was happy to discover that it is still there. Behind an apartment complex on the side of town I grew up, there is a trail the goes up a hill and into a forest. I think it used to function as a dirt road, and I remember—perhaps incorrectly—a gate at the bottom sixteen years ago, but it was far too overgrown for that. No one would try to drive up there now, and there was no gate.

Wildflowers line the path as it turns left and into a little wood atop the hill. It, too, was quite grown, but there were still paths a person could walk without having to trudge through too many weeds and branches. I knew we were on the right track, but I couldn’t quite remember exactly where it was we were heading. Just inside the wood, at the edge back toward the path that led up the hill, stood an old metal frame. It once had been a swing-set, but all that was left of the swings were the places where the chains would have connected to the frame. We were getting close, but this wasn’t it.

Looking down the hill in the wood, I wondered if the place I was looking for was down there but had become so overgrown as to be completely hidden. Still, I decided to keep going—even if we didn’t find it or it was no longer there, the forest was cool enough. We were having a good time.

We pressed onward following the path through the trees until I saw it, deeper into the wood and farther from the path up the hill: a clearing—not a natural clearing, however. When we got there, it was just how I remembered, except it had deteriorated even more than sixteen years ago. It was a parking lot or foundation of some sort. A building project begun and then abandoned to nature, and nature had taken it. Through cracks in the concrete, now wider than my car, grew bushes and flowers and reeds. Without constant upkeep from humans, our creations, however solid we may imagine them, prove weaker than a blade of grass.

What is stronger than concrete? I’ve seen ancient ruins in Greece and Romania. We think of them as eternal marks of humanity’s achievements, and, sure, they’re great. But the smallest plant, created by God, is greater and stronger. And how much more patient! Concrete must be continually mixed or it will harden fast. But year after year, through the rain and ice and snow, though hardened it cannot withstand the slow, patient, and gentle growth of the natural world. My son Brendan didn’t find the place to be as enchanted and magical as I did, but he liked the journey through the forest to get there, and he patiently listened to my attempt to impart this wisdom to him through my overly-elaborate metaphor.

Speaking of metaphors, St. Benedict did not make up the metaphor of the bruised reed but borrowed it from Scripture. It occurs first in the prophecy of Isaiah, concerning the coming Messiah. St. Matthew picks up on this in his account of the Gospel—to Christians, Jesus is the fulfillment of the promise, hence the title “Christ” (Greek for Messiah). Matthew either paraphrases a bit or the manuscript of Isaiah he used diverged a little from those we more commonly use today, but the illustration is wonderful.

Jesus hears of the Pharisees’ plot against him. And Matthew tells us,

But when Jesus knew it, He withdrew from there. And great multitudes followed Him, and He healed them all. Yet He warned them not to make Him known, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying:

“Behold! My Servant whom I have chosen,

My Beloved in whom My soul is well pleased!

I will put My Spirit upon Him,

And He will declare justice to the Gentiles.

He will not quarrel nor cry out,

Nor will anyone hear His voice in the streets.

A bruised reed He will not break,

And smoking flax He will not quench,

Till He sends forth justice to victory;

And in His name Gentiles will trust.” (Matthew 12:15-21)

Readers unfamiliar with Isaiah might think that this is where the reference stops, but St. Matthew is a better writer than that. In Isaiah, this is what comes next:

Thus says God the Lord,

Who created the heavens and stretched them out,

Who spread forth the earth and that which comes from it,

Who gives breath to the people on it,

And spirit to those who walk on it:

“I, the Lord, have called You in righteousness,

And will hold Your hand;

I will keep You and give You as a covenant to the people,

As a light to the Gentiles,

To open blind eyes,

To bring out prisoners from the prison,

Those who sit in darkness from the prison house. (Isaiah 42:5-7)

If we return to Matthew, we see that the very next story is meant to illustrate this point:

Then one was brought to Him who was demon-possessed, blind and mute; and He healed him, so that the blind and mute man both spoke and saw. And all the multitudes were amazed and said, “Could this be the Son of David?” (Matthew 12:22-23)

Here we see Jesus, God Incarnate, freeing a man not from a concrete prison, but from one much worse: psychological torment. Jesus opens his blind eyes, but even more so he brings him out of the darkness of mental disturbance. He sees someone that others believed unredeemable, beyond all help, as a bruised reed that ought not to be broken. With gentleness, he shows his power, and while the religious leaders of his day feared him as a threat to their authority, the crowds flocked to him in the hope that they, too, might feel the warmth of his love.

Patience is hard for parents. I have four children now! Each one is a blessing, but every day I struggle to get to bedtime without all my patience running out. I can’t imagine being a priest or an abbot. Having enough patience for whole communities is not something I can even think about when I so often come short in my own home.

But each day is a new beginning. I like St. Benedict’s words, because he refers not only to how the abbot ought to view the brothers at the monastery, but what sort of man the abbot ought to be as well. “He must be aware of his own frailty” in order to see the frailty of others.

Breaking a bruised reed might seem like strength in the moment, but it is far more powerful to nurture it back to health. So perhaps if I and other parents are also “aware of [our] own frailty,” we can turn that awareness outward toward our children and find the strength of gentle and patient care for them.

“… I partook of the holy and life-giving Mysteries in the Church of the Forerunner and ate half of one of my loaves. Then, after drinking some water from Jordan, I lay down and passed the night on the ground. In the morning I found a small boat and crossed to the opposite bank. I again prayed to Our Lady to lead me whither she wished. Then I found myself in this desert and since then up to this very day I am estranged from all, keeping away from people and running away from everyone. And I live here clinging to my God Who saves all who turn to Him from faintheartedness and storms.”

Zosima asked her: “How many years have gone by since you began to live in this desert?” She replied: “Forty-seven years have already gone by, I think, since I left the holy city.”

~ The Life of St. Mary of Egypt

This Sunday was the Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt, and in this time of isolation due to the current pandemic, her life takes on new meaning.

Pia Sophia Chaudhari wrote a wonderful reflection, published last week, encouraging people to consider the trauma that likely led to Mary’s well-known prodigality in her youth.

In this post, I want look instead at her isolation.

Mary tells Fr. Zosima that the first seventeen years were a constant fight with temptation. Literarily, this mirrors her own account of living a sinful life for seventeen years in Egypt in her youth. Her seventeen years of sin require seventeen years of repentance.

To Pia’s point, it should be noted that repentance is not traditionally a strictly juridical idea. It would be easy to draw the conclusion that there is a proportion of justice implied in the parallel between Mary’s seventeen years in the world and her first seventeen in the desert. That may very well be the case, but repentance — and sin, for that matter — is much broader. The Greek word means “to change one’s mind.” The Hebrew means “to turn around.” In this latter sense, God is even described as “repenting” from punishments out of his mercy. Because he was merciful, he did not at that time give his people what they deserved as a matter of justice but rather acted according to his grace.

Mary’s whole life in the desert — like all the saints — was a matter of repentance. Let us consider again Pia’s suggestion that behind Mary’s sin was likely trauma. Psychologically, the scars of the past cannot be overcome in an instant. As creatures, change is part of our natures — we are all always “in process.” Like Mary, many have had transformative moments of conversion — my point isn’t to downplay the power of such phenomena. Rather, it is to be mindful of the Lord’s parable of the seed that the sower sowed upon different kinds of soil. The seed that fell among the rocks grew up quickly, but it had no root and withered.

Mary not only had a dramatic conversion in Jerusalem, which she earlier details, but she then, in faith, set out to lay down deep roots. To extend the parable, we may think of those seventeen years as digging up the rocks and clearing the ground so that the seed she received would have room to grow.

I have been thinking about St. Mary of Egypt all through Lent this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Early on, many protested that stay at home orders applied to churches, especially Orthodox churches due to our understanding of the vital role of the sacraments, but notice what St. Mary says: She received the sacraments once at the Church of St. John the Forerunner, then set out into the desert … for forty-seven years! According to the story, she only received them one more time, by the hand of Fr. Zosima who returned to her, before her death.

Our current state is not “normal.” We stay inside for our safety and for the vulnerable in our communities. If we must go out, we keep our distance from others — they or we may be asymptomatic carriers — and many have started wearing face masks which even prevent us from smiling at each other.

At home, the single are faced with real isolation. Those with families face other frustrations. Whoever we are, we are facing the temptations — a word, it should be noted, which can also mean “trials” — of all the scars of our pasts. Many of us have found that the fight against them isn’t as easy as we had expected. And in the midst of it all, we are deprived of the grace of the sacraments.

Or are we?

Many saints — St. Maximos the Confessor, for example — say that we receive the fullness of God’s grace at our baptisms, just as the whole tree is contained in the single seed from which it grows. This isn’t to say that we don’t need the Eucharist. I’ll take all the grace I can get! Rather it is to remind us of God’s power. He has not left us without help. For St. Mary, it sustained her for forty-seven years.

We can get through this. Hopefully it won’t take forty-seven years. But however long it takes, let us use the time to clear away the rocks — the temptations — over which we so often stumble.

I am reminded of something Fr. Roman Braga, of blessed memory, once said about his time at the Pitesti prison — a Soviet torture camp — and his time, after the prison was shut down, in solitary confinement. He spent three or four years enduring unspeakable torture meant to brainwash him away from his deepest held beliefs, his faith, his morals. He said that at Pitesti he learned that the devil was real.

After the outside world heard about the prison, the Soviets immediately shut it down — they always wanted to put on a good face for the outside world. So they transferred Fr. Roman to solitary confinement for eleven years. Not quite forty-seven — or even seventeen — but still a very long time. He said that there he discovered that God was truly real. Because when you are alone, you have nowhere to look but inside yourself. And we all are created in the image of God, so what we see, when we are able to truly look there, is God — his imprint upon our hearts.

Fr. Roman was an academic before the Soviets arrested him. But he said that he learned his books had been a sort of prison of their own. By himself, there was nothing to do but face whatever lurked inside and to meet it with prayer. I suspect that experience is quite similar to St. Mary’s. Perhaps it is becoming familiar to some of us.

Even now, I know that I find ways to distract myself. There’s nothing wrong with taking a rest when it is needed, but maybe those innocent things can be a sort of prison for me as well, like Fr. Roman’s books.

We are isolated, worried, stressed out, tempted, confused, frustrated, impatient, and so much more right now. We have good reason to be. But we also have good reason to hope. Every resurrection is preceded by death. There is a real disease that is a threat to life and health. For those we lose, we can take refuge in that hope of the resurrection. There are economic consequences to the measures we’ve taken. For those of us who lost jobs, we can take refuge in that hope. For whole industries and economies that may be disrupted and lost, we can take refuge in that hope. And as long as humanity can remember, our world has been diseased with corruption and sin. And for our own mistaken images of ourselves, our misplaced self-worth, we can take refuge in that hope.

Our value is anchored not in the foaming river of our ever-changing world, but in the immovable grace of God, who raised our Lord from the dead, who raised St. Mary from a life of prodigality, who raises us every day.

Lord, have mercy. We will rise from this, too.

When anyone presents himself to be admitted as a monk, they shall not easily give him entrance; but, as the apostle advises: “Make trial of the spirits, to see if they are of God.” If he is importunate and goes on knocking at the door, for four or five days, and patiently bears insults and rebuffs and still persists, he shall be allowed to enter. He shall stay in the guest-room for a few days. Thence he shall go to the cell where the novices study and eat and sleep.

~ Rule of St. Benedict, 58

There is a saying of Christ that typically is translated, “I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Luke 11:9). This translation isn’t wrong, but English is one of the most precise languages, with millions of words and many words and phrases with slight nuance to express similar ideas. Thus, even when a translation is correct, something might get lost in translation.

In this case, I think something did. I recently read a different translation that also translated it correctly, “keep asking … keep seeking … keep knocking….” In English, the difference between the two is great. View full article »

How to Be a Saint (Part 2)

Read Part 1 here. There will be at least one or two more parts.

How to Be a Saint — Part 2

A Didache for Children

Child, all day you should remember the person who teaches you God’s message. You should treat that person like the Lord Jesus himself. Wherever people talk about the Lord, he is there with them! Hang out with holy people every day so that you can enjoy listening to them. Don’t be someone who causes people to leave each other. Be someone who brings people together! Be fair. Always side with the person who is right, even if that person isn’t your favorite. Be consistent and don’t regret doing the right thing. View full article »

How to Be a Saint (Part 1)

The following is an attempted paraphrase of the Didache, or the Teachings of the Twelve Apostles, a second-century beginners’ manual for the Christian life. It starts with a lot of teachings about sharing, so the thought occurred to me that it would be great for kids. Thus, I’ve paraphrased it especially with children in mind. This is not the whole document, but just a long enough segment, starting at the beginning, for a blog post, so one or more parts will be forthcoming. You can read a real translation of the original text here.

How to Be a Saint

A Didache for Children View full article »

Piety and Propriety

When Abba Theodore was supping with the brothers, they received the cups with silent reverence, and did not follow the usual custom of receiving the cup with a “Pardon me.” And Abba Theodore said: “The monks have lost their manners and do not say ‘Pardon me.'”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 15.20

Adam Smith, the founder of modern economics, was actually a moral philosopher. While his Wealth of Nations is better known today, he actually published another book seventeen years earlier: The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

This book is fascinating and bizarre. It is like no other book on ethics or morality that I’ve read. Indeed, one might even think of it more as a work of moral psychology, or maybe, in a uniquely anthropological and natural-philosophical way, a book of meta-ethics.

He does not begin by delineating a fundamental, normative principle or principles for moral action. Instead, he tries to answer the question: How do we become moral? He wants to be descriptive before being prescriptive. View full article »

The Fiery Furnace

It is He [Jesus] that raised Himself by the command of the Father in the space of three days, who is the pledge of our resurrection. For says He: “I am the resurrection and the life.” Now He that brought Jonas in the space of three days, alive and unhurt, out of the belly of the whale, and the three children out of the furnace of Babylon, and Daniel out of the mouth of the lions, does not want power to raise us up also.

~ Apostolic Constitution, 5.1.7

Today, Holy Saturday, the Old Testament readings include both the entire book of Jonah and the story of Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael (also know by their Babylonian names, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego), who were thrown into a fiery furnace when they refused to worship a statue of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. View full article »

Just a quote for today, Great and Holy Friday. I especially like the fishing metaphor, which also. perhaps, contains an allusion to the Old Testament story of the prophet Jonah and the whale. This is from St. John of Damascus, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, 3.27:

Since our Lord Jesus Christ was without sin (for He committed no sin, He Who took away the sin of the world, nor was there any deceit found in His mouth) He was not subject to death, since death came into the world through sin. He dies, therefore, because He took on Himself death on our behalf, and He makes Himself an offering to the Father for our sakes. For we had sinned against Him, and it was meet that He should receive the ransom for us, and that we should thus be delivered from the condemnation. God forbid that the blood of the Lord should have been offered to the tyrant. Wherefore death approaches, and swallowing up the body as a bait is transfixed on the hook of divinity, and after tasting of a sinless and life-giving body, perishes, and brings up again all whom of old he swallowed up. For just as darkness disappears on the introduction of light, so is death repulsed before the assault of life, and brings life to all, but death to the destroyer.

Aphorisms and Observations

Over the years of reflecting on the Gospel in the light of ancient Christian spiritual teachings, I’ve stumbled upon a few good aphorisms — pithy maxims — and observations derived from better, wiser aphorisms and observations from better, wiser men and women.

Nevertheless, the point of the blog is not monastic perfection but everyday achievement. On that score, I think my aphorisms are fairly helpful, and I figured one way I could remind myself of them — because I forget them all the time — would be to try to collect them all in one place.

Hence, this post. View full article »

10 Years Orthodox

Now I do not fear God, but I love him: for love casteth out fear.

~ St. Antony

January 11 was the tenth anniversary of my chrismation. Chrismation is typically done at the same time as baptism, but since I had already been baptized, and the Orthodox Church confesses “one baptism” in the Creed and thus does not re-baptize, I was received into the Church by chrismation. View full article »